Some stress in your life is healthy. The anticipation of a new job can motivate you to stay focused, and the adrenaline of a competition may help you perform at your best. But too much stress can have serious consequences on your health. Researchers suggest that in addition to these potential health risks, stress can have a dangerous effect on your memory.
Difficulty creating and forming memories
Elizabeth Scott, M.S., author of “8 Keys to Stress Management”, says stress can affect how we develop our memories.
“When stressed, people have a more difficult time creating short-term memories and turning those short-term memories into long-term memories, meaning that it is more difficult to learn when stressed,” she says in VeryWell Mind, a medically-reviewed online resource.
Stress can also change how we form memories. “If we are stressed during an event, we may have more difficulty accurately remembering the details of the event later, as the stress we felt colors our perceptions as well as our ability to recall what we perceived at the time,” she says. This is why witnesses to a crime may misremember obvious details, like whether the weather was raining during the event.
Emotional memories are targeted
In a 2005 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers tested 19 young healthy male subjects by using the Trier social stress test. This test fits the participants with an IV for collecting blood and a heart rate monitor. Then, they take the participants into a room with a panel of judges and camera equipment. The judges ask the participants to give a presentation for several minutes; then, they ask the participants to do complicated arithmetics.
In this study, the researchers gave the participants a word list 24 hours before the Trier social stress test with 10 neutral, 10 negative and 10 positive words. After the Trier social stress test, which increased their cortisol production and decreased their mood, researchers tested the participants’ memory of the word list. Participants had specific difficulty remembering the emotionally arousing positive and negative words as opposed to the neutral words. The researchers suggest stress especially impairs our emotional memories.
Chronic stress affects learning
Everyday stress, like a busy daily routine or a difficult relationship, may impair your ability to learn new information. According to researcher Renato Pasquali from the University of Bologna in Italy, chronic stress puts your body in a heightened state. In his paper for the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, your stress activates the alert fight-or-flight response and returns to homeostasis when the stress goes away, meaning your body relaxes into a normal state of self-repair. However, with ongoing chronic stress, your body never has a chance to return to homeostasis.
In the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers published a study that exposed rats to a cat for five weeks. Then, they tested their memory by placing them in a maze. Their data revealed the rats under chronic stress struggled with the maze and had difficulty learning to adapt to new situations and environments.
What you can do about it
For students pulling all-nighters under duress, there may still be techniques to prevent this obstacle. A 2016 study in the journal Science tested 120 subjects under stress by having them study 30 nouns or images one at a time. Half of the group practiced a technique called forced retrieval. An example of forced retrieval is creating flashcards while learning new material rather than rereading a textbook the night before an exam. When the researchers tested them on the nouns and images, the stressed subjects using forced retrieval had better results.
To help with all the other ways stress can affect your memory, Scott says aerobics and meditation can help with memory formation and retrieval. But the most effective way is to manage your stress directly. No matter your method, balancing your perception of stress can improve your memory.
Williams, R. A., Hagerty, B. M., & Brooks, G. (2004). Trier Social Stress Test: A method for use in nursing research. Nursing research, 53(4), 277-280.